As the people of Burma rise up again, we have had a rare sighting of Aung San Suu Kyi. There she stood, at the back gate of her lakeside home in Rangoon, where she is under house arrest. She looked very thin. For years, people would brave the roadblocks just to pass by her house and be reassured by the sound of her playing the piano. She told me she would lie awake listening for voices outside and to the thumping of her heart. “I found it difficult to breathe lying on my back after I became ill, she said.”
That was a decade ago. Stealing into her house, as I did then, required all the ingenuity of the Burmese underground. My film-making partner David Munro and I were greeted by her assistant, Win Htein, who had spent six years in prison, five of them in solitary confinement. Yet his face was open and his handshake warm. He led us into the house, a stately pile fallen on hard times. The garden with its ragged palms falls down to Inya Lake and to a trip wire, a reminder that this was the prison of a woman elected by a landslide in 1990, a democratic act extinguished by generals in ludicrous uniforms.
Aung San Suu Kyi wore silk and had orchids in her hair. She is a striking, glamorous figure whose face in repose shows the resolve that has seen her along her heroic journey.
We sat in a room dominated by a wall-length portrait of Aung San, independent Burma’s assassinated liberation fighter, the father she never knew.
“What do I call you?” I asked. “Well, if you can’t manage the whole thing, friends call me Suu.”
“The regime is always saying you are finished, but here you are, hardly finished. How is that?”
“It’s because democracy is not finished in Burma . . . Look at the courage of the people [on the streets], of those who go on working for democracy, those who have already been to prison. They know that any day they are likely to be put back there and yet they do not give up.”
“But how do you reclaim the power you won at the ballot box with brute power confronting you?” I asked.
“In Buddhism we are taught there are four basic ingredients for success. The first is the will to want it, then you must have the right kind of attitude, then perseverance, then wisdom . . .”
“But the other side has all the guns?”
“Yes, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to resolve problems by military means. It’s no longer acceptable.”
We talked about the willingness of foreign business to come to Burma, especially tour companies, and of the hypocrisy of “friends” in the West. I read her a British Foreign Office press release: “Through commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles.”
“Not in the least bit,” she responded, “because new investments only help a small elite to get richer and richer. Forced labor goes on all over the country, and a lot of the projects are aimed at the tourist trade and are worked by children.”
“People I’ve spoken to regard you as something of a saint, a miracle worker.”
“I’m not a saint and you’d better tell the world that!”
“Where are your sinful qualities, then?”
“Er, I’ve got a short temper.”
“What happened to your piano?”
“You mean when the string broke? In this climate pianos do deteriorate and some of the keys were getting stuck, so I broke a string because I was pumping the pedal too hard.”
“You lost it … you exploded?”
“It’s a very moving scene. Here you are, all alone, and you get so angry you break the piano.”
“I told you, I have a hot temper.”
“Weren’t there times when, surrounded by a hostile force, cut off from your family and friends you were actually terrified?”
“No, because I didn’t feel hostile towards the guards surrounding me. Fear comes out of hostility and I felt none towards them.”
“But didn’t that produce a terrible aloneness …?”
“Oh, I have my meditation, and I did have a radio . . . And loneliness comes from inside, you know. People who are free and who live in big cities suffer from it, because it comes from inside.”
“What were the small pleasures you’d look forward to?”
“I’d look forward to a good book being read on ‘Off the Shelf’ on the BBC and of course to my meditation …. I didn’t enjoy my exercises so much; I’d never been a very athletic type.”
“Was there a point when you had to conquer fear?”
“Yes. When I was small in this house. I wandered around in the darkness until I knew where all the demons might be . . . and they weren’t there.”
For several years after that encounter with Aung San Suu Kyi I tried to phone the number she gave me. The phone would ring, then go dead. One day I got through.
“Thank you so much for the books,” she said. “It has been a joy to read widely again.” (I had sent her a collection of T S Eliot, her favorite, and Jonathan Coe’s political romp What a Carve Up!.) I asked her what was happening outside her house. “Oh, the road is blocked and they [the military] are all over the street . . .”
“Do you worry that you might be trapped in a terrible stalemate?”
“I am really not fond of that expression,” she replied rather sternly. “People have been on the streets. That’s not a stalemate. Ethnic people, like the Karen, are fighting back. That’s not a stalemate. The defiance is there in people’s lives, day after day. You know, even when things seem still on the surface, there’s always movement underneath. It’s like a frozen lake; and beneath our lake, we are progressing, bit by bit.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“What I am saying is that, no matter the regime’s physical power, in the end they can’t stop the people; they can’t stop freedom. We shall have our time.”
This article was first published by the New Statesman